Just as  I do on the right.

This post was previously published by Terry Laughlin on Apr. 12, 2011. The forum post mentioned is archived.


Few swimmers really pay attention. Opening – or closing – your eyes can change everything.

John shared an exciting discovery about breathing on the TI Discussion Forum:

I’m a bit reluctant to admit it took me a year to come to this insight, but perhaps it will help others. I’ve always struggled to find the right head position for breathing. Sometimes I feel I need to nearly submerge my head to feel balanced, but in that position I feel I can’t get air. I had an ‘aha’ moment last week, when I finally noticed that I close my eyes while breathing.  I began to consciously keep my eyes focused through the breath and it has made a world of difference. Now I can see precisely how far to rotate, when to inhale and when to stop. With my eyes closed, I would turn my head too far, lose balance and then need to recover.

Now, as I rotate toward air, I see the tint of the water change, watch one goggle clear the surface, begin inhaling and close my mouth just as the water closes over it. Suddenly I feel as if I have far more time to breathe and I stay better aligned and balanced. With eyes closed, I didn’t know what I was missing. Too bad it took me a year to figure out. Doh!

John, congratulations, on your invaluable insight – which came over 30 years quicker than it did to me! I can precisely recall the day I had a similar discovery. I was swimming at Lake Minnewaska on Labor Day weekend around 2003. It was chilly – about 54 degrees – and raining steadily. My friend Dave Barra and I were the only two people swimming.

After we’d been swimming about 10 minutes, looking for diversion, I began “scanning” with my eyes as I rotated to breathe. First I noticed that the underside of the surface was dimpled by the rain and found that almost mesmerizing.  Then I kept my gaze keen as my eyes and mouth broke the surface. Like you, I immediately realized this helped me sharpen the timing of the breath and make small adjustments to head position. That has stayed with me ever since.

While your insight will be of value to many, I think you also make a larger point  — The Value of Being Observant.  Paying attention, and consequently noticing things that usually escape your attention is relatively rare among swimmers. This is a result of the common focus on yardage totals, repeat times, intervals, etc. Tuning out to get through it also results when workouts are tedious or lack a clear purpose beyond “getting the yards in.” The fact that it took me 30 years to notice what you noticed after one year is evidence of how pervasive inattention can be.

Be Observant is just another way of saying Swim Mindfully.

And here’s the flip side to your discovery of the value of keeping your eyes open. Have you ever noticed yourself closing your eyes when trying to intensify your focus, usually on a subtle or elusive aspect of technique?

After I began swimming more mindfully, I noticed that during moments of especially keen focus I would instinctively close my eyes. It’s well known that people who lose their sight become far more attuned to sound and feel. For the rest of us, taking away visual input has the effect of making your sense of feel a lot keener. In water — which is literally a sea of sensation — anything that sharpens kinesthetic awareness is invaluable. You can experiment with brief periods of swimming with your eyes closed (when it’s safe to do so) to heighten your sensitivity to sensory input and increase your awareness of the subtleties in your stroke, including how you breathe.

In a previous post on breathing, I also wrote that many people have found it much easier to breathe when they realized they could both inhale and exhale just enough air, and didn’t need to either fill or empty their lungs. The point is really to notice things you may have ignored before

To learn more in-depth detail about the breathing mechanics of efficient swimming, check out our video “O2 in H2O: A Self Help Course on Breathing in Swimming”– available as a digital download or on dvd.
O2 in H2O cover imageNothing is more essential to a swimmer than air. Yet few swimmers truly understand how to breathe efficiently… not just to get air, but to integrate breathing seamlessly with the stroke. Breathing is sometimes viewed as a liability or inconvenience, but when you do it right, breathing can actually make your stroke better. This video shows you how, using water bowl exercises, shallow water exercises, skills in drills, and whole stroke breathing skills. Detailed studies with focal points for practice cover these three major strokes: Freestyle, Breaststroke, and Butterfly.